The Avatar's Avatar

How Sony designer and Women's Game Conference Chair Sheri Graner Ray plans to save the industry from stagnation

The Avatar's Avatar

As the two-day geekfest known as the Austin Game Conference hits town Sept. 9-10, a girls geekfest will run right alongside it: the Women's Game Conference. This is the time the wild women of gameland can kvetch, bond, scheme, and plan for a day when their ranks will swell and when female characters will come in sizes other than 48DD. Participants and panelists will discuss women's issues in recruitment and hiring practices, game journalism, workplace "quality of life" issues, and, of course, the endless parade of weapon-toting, anatomically incorrect fantasy nymphettes.

Conference Chair Sheri Graner Ray, a senior game designer with Sony Online Entertainment, has spent the past 10 years voicing gender concerns, most weightily through her 2003 book, Gender Inclusive Game Design: Expanding the Market. Learning to create games women will play, she argues, is not simply the nice, inclusive thing to do. It is the only way the industry will survive.

Austin Chronicle: Why a game conference for women?

Sheri Graner Ray: The aim is to have a positive, productive environment to address the issues facing women in the industry. It would be very easy for a group like this to turn into a gripe session to share horror stories, but the idea is to move forward. And the time is right. In the last three years, every time I speak, someone comes up to me and says, "We ran an ad for a position, and of the 150 résumés we got, only three were from women. How can we get more women to apply?" It's not that women look at the game industry and discard it. It's that it's not even on their radar. So it's up to conferences like this to let women know that there is a place for them in this industry. We will be addressing women in the industry, women who would like to be in the industry, and making products that are more accessible to the female audience.

AC: Are many companies currently making games for women?

SGR: The biggest misconception out there is that you can make a game "for women": "If I put pink fuzzy bunnies into my game, all women will like my game." But women are not a genre: They are a market. They have diverse tastes, interests, wants, and desires in their games.

AC: So, are many companies trying to create games for the female market?

SGR: They tried about 10 years ago, when the Barbie titles came to define the women's market. The game industry saw the success of Barbie and went out and tried to make a bunch of Barbie clones, and failed miserably because only Barbie does Barbie well. So they said, "All women's games equal Barbie, and we don't do Barbie very well, so we're not going to do women's games." So at this point we don't really have anybody who's coming forth and saying, "This game is aimed at the female market."

AC: Would you like to see that?

SGR: I would like to see titles that are designed with female entertainment criteria in mind. But it doesn't necessarily have to be labeled as "for the female market." You don't see movies advertised as "chick flicks," but when you see Vanity Fair or Titanic, you pretty much know it's a chick flick.

AC: What are female entertainment criteria?

SGR: One is victor conditions: what determines whether you win or lose a game. Females traditionally will prefer a "forgiveness for error" model rather than a "punishment for error" model, so that when you make an error, your progress is slowed for a while, but nothing is irretrievably lost.

And you can start dealing with your avatar representation. This is a hot-button issue. Whenever I talk about it, some guy always says, "Well, they exaggerate male characters as much as female characters, so I don't see what you girls get so upset about." In some ways he's right, and in some ways he's wrong. An avatar is a representation of the user in the virtual environment. When we select something to represent us, we want that person to be a hero: young, strong, and either virile or fertile. In the male physique, that means broad shoulders, slender waist and hips, large legs and arms, and long, thick hair. For the female figure, it's large breasts placed high on the chest, slender waist, long thick hair, round derriere. So we do exaggerate these things on both the male and female characters, because these things say, "I am a hero."

But with female characters, we also exaggerate the sexual receptivity traits that say, "I'm ready for sex right now." When the human body is ready for sex, a blood rush to the face makes the lips fuller and redder, the eyelids become thicker and heavier, breathing becomes faster, which in art is represented by open mouth, and the nipples become erect. In female characters, these traits are also exaggerated. But the male body exhibits the exact same traits when ready for sex – the nipples, the lips, the eyes – and we don't see those exaggerated on our male characters. So, the game industry says, "Here, girls, you need to be represented by this character who's ready for sex all the time." I can't imagine exaggerating those traits on a male character and saying, "Go get your sword, guys. You're ready for Diablo now." The game industry needs to be aware of these things, because there's no reason you can't make your female characters young, strong, and fertile. Give them a larger bust – we even find our female players like that. They just don't like this hypersexualization.

AC: Are there any games you'd like to see developed for a female audience?

SGR: Is there any one specific genre or type of game? Not really. All the games out there have a certain percentage of female players, and what I would like to see is those percentages increased.

On the other hand, I do not condemn making games that cater to the female market. A world that says we can make games for boys only, and we can make games that are gender inclusive like Tetris, but we can't make games that cater primarily to women – I find that to be really sad. I hope at some point we see the game equivalent of chick flicks.

AC: What might that look like?

SGR: I'm loath to define it, because I want to get this industry away from thinking, "We'll find the silver bullet game and then all the women will play it and then we don't have to change the other games we're making." But that's not the case. We need to really address what we're doing with our titles right now. If I have to see one more hypersexualized female on the cover of a game box, I will scream. They have to understand that while that may attract a certain percentage of the audience, it's a huge barrier for a huge potential market. And that's a market that this industry needs.

The computer game industry is growing faster than its target market. That is bad. That means that we will stagnate. And we're already starting to see it. Any time you pitch a game, the first thing the publisher says is "Well, that's really nice, but how much of the market share will it take away from X that we already have?" That shows us that we're already stagnant. The way we can be a growing industry is by looking for other markets. Gender is one area, race and age are others. I can carry the gender banner. Somebody else can take up the other ones.


The Austin Game Initiative hosts the Austin Game Conference and the Women's Game Conference Sept. 9-10 at the Austin Convention Center.

Registration, which is available online at www.acteva.com/booking.cfm?bevaid=57668 and on a walk-up basis, includes participation at both conferences.

For rates and more information, log on to www.gameconference.com or www.womensgameconference.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Sheri Graner Ray, Sony Online Entertainment, Women's Game Conference, Austin Game Conference

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